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Uruguay votes to legalize marijuana

Uruguay’s Senate voted for a government-sponsored bill establishing state regulation of the cultivation, distribution and consumption of marijuana during a session in Montevideo on Tuesday. The law makes the small South American nation the world’s first to allow its citizens to grow, buy and smoke marijuana. (Andres Stapff/REUTERS)

Lawmakers in the small South American nation of Uruguay voted Tuesday to legalize and regulate marijuana, going further than any other country in the world toward decriminalizing the plant and lifting the stigma from its use.

With the move, Uruguay leaps to the forefront of nations that have sought alternatives to criminal anti-narcotics enforcement, frustrated with the human and economic costs of fighting a drug war that rarely shows signs of progress.

The Uruguayan government will have 120 days to implement its plans for a sprawling reefer bureaucracy — the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis — to manage the country’s new marijuana marketplace.

“Uruguay has taken a step forward,” said Sen. Luis Rosadilla, from the ruling Broad Front party, just before voting in favor of the measure, which passed 16 to 13 in the upper chamber. “We’ll see how it works, and we’ll continue looking for solutions.”

Unlike Mexico, Colombia and many other countries in Latin America that are mired in drug violence and the corrosive influences of transnational cartels, Uruguay (population 3.3 million) has relatively little crime. But lawmakers in the country said legalizing marijuana and tightly regulating its production, sale and consumption is a sensible alternative to the seemingly Sisyphean task of banning its citizens’ pot use.

Under the law, marijuana users will be allowed to buy a maximum of 40 grams ­(1.4 ounces)­ each month from government-regulated outlets, provided that they are at least 18 years old and registered in a database to monitor their cumulative purchases.

Growers will be allowed to cultivate up to six plants in their homes each year, not to exceed 480 grams. Aficionados will also be able to join forces and establish smoking clubs of 15 to 45 members with the ability to produce 99 plants a year. The green stuff won’t be allowed over the borders.

Nor will foreign tourists will be eligible to buy Uruguay’s legalized weed, making it improbable that Montevideo, the capital, will turn into a southern Amsterdam besieged by a flood of global stoners.

The experiment in Uruguay will be closely watched by other countries in Latin America and around the world, including the United States, where the Obama administration opposes marijuana legalization but has softened to state-driven ballot initiatives that decriminalize its use.

Voters in Colorado and Washington state have already approved recreational use of the drug, and 15 other states also have eased restrictions, many ostensibly for medical use.

Advocates for marijuana decriminalization in the United States followed Uruguay’s efforts closely, even helping to finance advertising campaigns in favor of the law. Other Latin American nations have also expressed interest in trying a regulatory approach to their drug problems, and could be encouraged to follow suit.

“For the first time, a country has said we’ll take the profits out of the drug trade and give criminals no reason to traffic the stuff,” said Sanho Tree, a drug policy expert at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. “It’s a counterintuitive solution to the problem.”

Many Uruguayans have been less enthusiastic, with polls showing that a majority of voters were not in favor of the measure.

“I hope I’m wrong, but this is going to contribute to the further deterioration of our education system, especially among the poorest classes,” said Sen. Alfredo Solari, before voting against the measure after more than 12 hours of debate.

The legislation has already cleared Uruguay's lower house and has the backing of the country’s quirky president, José “Pepe” Mujica , a former Marxist guerrilla who says he has never smoked pot.

Nick Miroff is a Latin America correspondent for The Post, roaming from the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to South America’s southern cone. He has been a staff writer since 2006.

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